Alaska House candidate saves fellow kitesurfer



Joe Riggs, a candidate for House District 26 and professional-level kitesurfer, last week led a group in rescuing a fellow kitesurfer in trouble on Turnagain Arm.

The wind was strong, he said, blowing at 50-60 mph, and the waves were 10 to 12 feet high, what Riggs calls “double-head high,” a surfing term to indicate about twice the height of an average human.

Turnagain Arm is the kind of kitesurfing conditions best left to people with his skill set. It’s not the place for beginners, but Riggs is a regular at Windy Point. He and his friends wear safety gear that includes helmets, ear plugs, impact vests, floatation devices of thick neoprene, and they all look out for each other. They are all sponsored by kitesurfing manufacturers. Riggs represents Switch Kites.

“We always theorized what would happen if someone had to eject from their kites out there, but we never could practice it because it is so dangerous,” Riggs said.

The surfer who suddenly needed rescuing last Sunday was off of Windy Point, on the road side of Turnagain Arm. One of the waves touched his kite, and toss him like a rag doll into his tow lines, which are cords that connect the surfer to the kite.

Then, the unthinkable happened: The kite filled with wind again and took off, as the man struggled underwater to untangle his neck and body from the lines, which were becoming tighter around him. It all happened in an instant, as shown in this video taken by a bystander:


The surfer, still bound by his lines, was tossed 20 to 30 feet into the air, within less than a second, and them slammed onto the water, where he once again struggled to untangle himself. Just as he was nearly free, the kite powered up again, and slammed him a second time. Then a third.

The man wasn’t able to get to work his safety release, Riggs said, and he was flipped up again, with the kite moving into a pattern Riggs calls a “death spiral,” where it whipped around and around, dragging the man behind it. He was finally able to work the safety release.

“We saw it happen, and we came toward him on our boards. In a minute, he went over a big wave and we lost him, even though he was in a bright orange vest. We were trying to find him, and we broke into a grid pattern. About 10 minutes into it, someone called 911, and in 20 minutes one of our guys found him over near Hope (across the body of water).

“Three of us got around him, and one of the kiters got rid of his board and was just hanging onto the guy, trying to drag him into shore. But the wind was too strong, and the current was too strong, and our kites were just too small to fight the currents. We were dragging him, but we were headed toward Girdwood.”

Kitesurfing on Turnagain Arm.

They weren’t making progress against the wind and current, and the man was being dragged through the 50-degree water, which was flushing through his wet suit. That was a recipe for disaster.

So Riggs made the decision to go back to the other side of the arm and get a bigger kite.

“I headed back to the beach. It took me about 20 minutes. My five meters of fabric just wasn’t enough to tow him with me so I got my next kite, about 10 meters of fabric –massively overpowered. It took two guys to hold onto my harness so I didn’t get dragged down the beach.

“I fought my way back over, and it took every bit of skill that I had.  I managed to get to him and — I could barely control this overpowered kite — I had a rope to tie him, because he was too cold, he just couldn’t hold on that well at that point. I just kept talking to him all the way across. That kite was so overpowered even with the two of us, we went so fast we were skipping over the water like we were being towed by a ski boat.”

There were mud-sand bars and channels to cross on the road side of the arm, so the two had to walk through the mud and then relaunch the kite to get across the channels. They worked together and then finally, Riggs was able to walk his friend up to the Seward Highway, where the fire department checked him out.

Joe Riggs kitesurfing — and wiping out — on a calmer day.

A paramedic and firefighter for 10 years, Riggs knew that hypothermia was stalking them both.

“He was extremely cold. It took 15 minutes to walk him out but during that time he recovered,” Riggs said.

“The paramedics checked the kiter out at the scene and he’ll be okay, but it was a close call. I’m grateful for everyone who participated in the rescue – in all likelihood, their efforts saved his life,” Riggs said.

“Don’t forget, it just wasn’t me out there. We had a team working the problem and he always had two other kiters with him once we found him.”

All three men who are vying for District 26 as Republicans are heroes — Laddie Shaw is a retired Navy Seal, and Al Fogle is retired from the U.S. Army, serving in the infantry in Iraq.

But none is as expert on a kiteboard as Joe Riggs, who might find that politics is actually a lot less intense, and maybe even a bit more mundane than an average day on Turnagain Arm.


  1. That is quite a story. Thank you for finding the rest of it as well as footage of the surf that day. Kite surfing is certainly not for the faint of heart!

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